Outreach Programs – Lessons for Healthcare Marketers

Outreach Programs are essential weapons in the armoury of a healthcare marketer. The programs are widely used for creating awareness about the hospital’s services amongst people, who live in communities away from the hospital. Quite often these programs also serve as screening services for more serious disorders and the hospital naturally hopes to attract some of the patients requiring higher end diagnostics and treatment to its doors.

Very often the communities served by the outreach programs are either rural or semiurban, where the availability of good quality, modern healthcare is very limited. These communities too hugely benefit from these outreach programs as they get access to good quality healthcare services.    

Inspite of a win win situation both for the hospitals as well as the far flung communities served by a hospital’s outreach program there are not too many real success stories of outreach programs. Good intentions rarely translate into effective and successful programs.

Artemis Health Institute (AHI) based in Gurgaon in the National Capital Region of Delhi last year instituted an outreach program which involved the cardiology teams. The program comprised of weekly outpatient clinics by cardiologists at Sohna, Rewari and Bhiwadi, semi urban communities all located with in a radius of 50 kms from the hospital. The three locations were carefully chosen as they are well connected to the hospital (the driving time less than 90 mins)  and there are no qualified local cardiologists. The population of the towns is about half a million each.

The program has been running for more than a year now with less than satisfactory results. Everybody agrees that the opportunity is huge. Yet there is really very little to show for it on the ground.

The lessons learnt are simple yet profound.

A community outreach program can be a success only if the doctors involved un the program are completely committed to it. At Artemis it was always a challenge to get the doctors to go. The doctors felt that going out in the ‘field’ and seeing patients at an outreach clinic, (which would typically run from a local ill equipped but popular hospital) was beneath their dignity. Some believed that it just served no purpose as patients seen at these clinics were too poor to go to private and expensive hospitals like AHI. 

Some would complaint that there is no point in traveling so far unless there are enough patients. This was like the proverbial chicken and egg. Patients will come if the doctors show up regularly and on time. A no show also destroyed the relationship with the local hospital as their credibility suffers as well. At Artemis we never could convince our senior doctors that this was worth their time and effort.

An outreach program must be an integral part of the Marketing Program of the Hospital and the hospital must spend the money needed to popularise the program. At Artemis the clinic was advertised with the help of local ads, handbills and banners. However, there were always severe budegtary constraints. The money was never enough.

Consistency of the program is essential. It is imperative that as far as possible the outreach clinic be run by a single physician. This enables the local population to forge a relationship with the doctor, whom he knows he can meet every week. At Artemis this was rare. Though the clinics were assigned to a senior physician, he seldom went. Sending someone else usually a junior greenhorn served no purpose. The patients could see through his inexperience.

Time is essential for the success of the program. It is quite unfair to expect that the program will deliver a large number of patients in a hurry.  A level of trust must develop between the doctor and the local folks, before patients turn up at the door of the hospital. In my estimation a minimum of 6 months of regular effort is a must. At Artemis we were always in a rush.

The Local partner is important. The local partner must be selected with care. His expectations from the program should be ascertained and a fit between the hospital and the local partner should be evaluated. The local partner wants an association with a bigger tertiary care hospital as it adds to its own prestige, At the same time he hates being pushed around by the big hospital. At Artemis we tried hard to get the fit right. I would like to believe we succeeded more often than we failed.

I also know of far more successful programs initiated by the doctors themselves usually in communities where they have their own roots. Dr. Anil Bhan a cardiac surgeon ran a successful program in Srinagar, Kashmir for many years. That however must be the subject of another post.

The image is from http://www.flickr.com

The author was till recently the Head of Sales and Marketing at Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon




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